Friday, October 17, 2008

Polish Priest Scientist wins Templeton Prize

This year’s winner of the richest of all international awards, The Templeton Prize, is the Polish priest mathematical physicist, Michael Heller. This choice of Heller’s peers highlights the importance of the search for the origin and meaning of the universe, as a joint enterprise of science and religion. It is a judgement, I dare say, that will not altogether please atheistic ideologues such as Richard Dawkins and like minded academics. Fr. Heller’s award follows in the tradition of celebrated priest scientists such as Gregor Mendel, who gave us the foundation of modern genetic and George Lamaitre, who formulated the concept of the ‘Big Bang’ theory.

Despite the anti-intellectualism of the Communist regime that controlled Poland for most of his life, Heller established himself during the 1970’s and 1980’s as an international figure among cosmologists and physicists generally, through his more than thirty books and some four hundred scholarly papers. These covered questions such as the unification of general relativity, quantum mechanics and the philosophy and history of science.

As a Catholic priest Michael Heller overcame the anti religious propaganda of Polish Communist officialdom and revealed new insights for people of religious faith by enhancing the traditional Christian way of viewing the universe, within a wider cosmological setting and by providing a fresh dimension to this important inquiry in terms of the ‘theology of science’.

In his nomination of Dr. Heller for the Templeton award, Professor Carol Musiol of the Institute of Physics at the Jagillonian University of Kracow, commended this year’s laureate as follows: “his, (Heller’s) unique position as a creatively working scientist and reflective man of religion, has brought to science a sense of transcendent mystery and to religion, a view of the universe through the broadly open eyes of science. It is evident for him that the mathematical nature of the world and its comprehensibility by humans, constitute the circumstantial evidence of the existence of God”.

The symbolic impact of naming Dr. Heller for this international honour could be construed as a reminder that scholars who are devoted exclusively to the pursuit of strictly empirical studies, may be tempted by a myopic approach to their inquiry, especially as is common among Anglophone Scientists. In other words, the international Templeton award committee may be hinting that the time has come to redeem the holistic mindset and to broaden the intellectual imagination to the point of acknowledging that what we experience as reality, extends beyond what can be measured by technology and analysed without remainder, within the confining four walls of the laboratory. Like political dictators, the dictatorship that infects some scientific schools, no longer serves all of the best interests of the genuinely enquiring mind. We are reminded that the strict and true meaning of the word ‘scientia’ is ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’. Often the word has come to mean ‘zealotry dressed in a white coat!’.

The 2008 Templeton prize was officially awarded to Dr. Heller by Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace on 7th May.

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